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Hidden Spirituality: Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

by Brendan Dooley

Posted: Jul 29, 2014 11:34 AM


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Vasily Kandinsky, Group in Crinolines (Reifrockgesellschaft), 1909. 

A quick Google search for Kandinsky Before Abstraction, 1901-1911 at the Guggenheim yields disappointingly few results. At a time when technology has made everyone a potential critic, one can hardly find an exhibition note, blog post, blurb or even a tweet that mentions the show, let alone evaluates it. This is a shame; for though the exhibition is small and the subject familiar, it is still worthy of attention and consideration. Vasily Kandinsky is a pivotal figure in the history of modern art: perhaps more than any other painter, he is identified with the transition from representational to abstract painting that occurred early in the second decade of the twentieth century. Kandinsky’s pioneering role makes an examination of the period before his momentous leap very much worth one’s time.

It should first be said that in 1901 when the show picks up, Kandinsky was already thirty-five years old—he had only started painting in 1896 after abandoning a promising legal career. So it should not be surprising that the earliest paintings in the exhibition look like the work of a somewhat skilled amateur—very far removed from what most people think of Kandinsky and his most famous works.  

In terms of technique, they are decent Impressionist imitations. Kandinsky gets a lot out of his small, swishy brushstrokes, including a whole crowd of people in Amsterdam—View from the Window (1904) composed of nothing more than flicks of the wrist. However, he has very little grasp of perspective (even of the shallow, Impressionist kind), and the organization of these early landscapes is clumsy and uneven.

 

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Vasily Kandinsky, Amsterdam—View from the Window (Amsterdam—Blick aus dem Fenster), 1904

He corrected some of the organizational miscues of these early paintings with a series of woodcuts in 1907. Done simply in black and white, or a very limited palette of muted colors, Kandinsky learns something about concision and composition using this new medium, rendering fairly complex Russian folk scenes with simplicity and grace.

None of these earlier works, however, prepare you for the the second half of the exhibition, paintings from 1908-1911 including a brilliant selection of smaller landscapes and two large canvases that still have the power to astonish. The landscapes are vast improvements on his earlier Impressionist studies. In Study for “Landscape with Tower” (1908), for instance, Kandinsky seems to all of the sudden be seized by color, and applies it with a boldness and intensity across broad planes that speak to something beyond mere representation.

The 1909 painting Group in Crinolines (the first of the larger canvases) is a highly original combination of Impressionism and Fauvism depicting four bourgeois couples in stiff formal dress (the aforementioned “crinolines”) promenading about. The scene is mundane but the extraordinary profusion of color is stunning. It is impossible to list every shade used (I tried in my notes), as Kandinsky covers every corner of the canvas with patches of every bright hue that his mind can come up with.

He is playing a tricky game with this painting, using a whole host of colors that on their own might be considered garish. Yet somehow, through the wedding of two complementary tones, through the mingling and opposition of others, through the mysterious of vibrations of kindred colors and the even more mysterious vibrations of disparate ones, Kandinsky makes it all cohere—and he does so with frightening ease.

The largest work on display, 1911’s Pastorale, is the work that edges closest to abstraction. Like Group in Crinolines, there are figures (three women in dresses, the head of a top-hatted man, and a small grouping of animals), but they’ve melted into the background and have become more placeholders for a variety of yellows and whites than anything truly representative. The perspective has been flattened so much that everything almost exists as a single entity on a single plane in some strange space between background and foreground. There is a feeling of atmospheric space—one might say a kind of naturalistic space—that Kandinsky never really does away with even at his most abstract; a space unlike the impenetrable flat surfaces of the analytic, and later synthetic, Cubists working at the same time.

 

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Vasily Kandinsky, Pastorale, February 1911, Oil on canvas, 105.7 x 156.5 cm

Unfortunately, the exhibition never really explains how or why Kandinsky made such extraordinary leap from the capable but unremarkable early paintings and woodcuts to the fantastic paintings he produced from 1908 onwards. The curation doesn’t makes sense if we are only to look at Kandinsky in terms of formal qualities, because the story that this small collection of paintings tells is not of a linear stylistic progression but of the spiritual awakening which coincided with the years of these later paintings and is essential to understanding the artist.

As Hilton Kramer explained in a 1972 review of Kandinsky for The New York Times, theosophy was a set of beliefs “where reason bows to the irrational and there is literally nothing too farfetched to be entertained as a revelation of eternal truth,” leading rationalist art historians to “treat this conjunction of interests as an interesting but unimportant aberration […] to be acknowledged, if only to be denied any real significance.” It seems as if by titling the exhibition Kandinsky Before Abstraction, the curators were hoping to be able to present the artist before his introduction to theosophy, before his association with the occultists Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, before he became devoted to all the spiritual beliefs that we now deem silly and slightly embarrassing.

Yet I do not think Kandinsky would have leapt so boldly towards the expressive use of color and abstraction if he did not sincerely believe, as many theosophists then did, that colors and shapes corresponded to particular spiritual values, or that the material universe was literally on the way to dissolution. Of course he was a diligent painter with a wide range of visual interests and references, but his sensibility and work cannot be explained solely through these means. We should not be embarrassed by his beliefs; other artists have believed things as dubious and far more sinister. But rarely have there been paintings so good or so singular.

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Critic's Notebook for July 28, 2014

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Jul 28, 2014 05:27 PM


Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Reassessing Roberto Bolaño's work, a World War I film series, and a must-see group show on the Lower East Side.

Fiction: Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead): This humorous debut follows a Ukrainian Jewish family, the Nasmertovs, as they relocate from Odessa to Brooklyn. The traditional hardships faced by immigrants are cast alongside the realities of living in 1990s- and 2000s-era New York in a novel that gives the coming-to-America narrative a fresh treatment. BPK

Nonfiction: Roberto Bolaño's Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews (Columbia UP): Roberto Bolaño’s oeuvre is impressive not just for its scope—including more than a dozen novels, six poetry collections, numerous short stories, and many essays—but also for the rapidity with which he produced quality work, especially during the last decade of his life. The poet Chris Andrews, who has translated ten of Bolaño’s books, explores this challenging body of work through a thematic framework in his keen-eyed criticism, probing famous novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666 as well as Bolaño’s lesser known writings. BPK

Poetry: Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure: The Dirty Art of Poetry by William Logan (Columbia UP): You loved (or reviled) them the first time. Don’t miss the chance to re-savor William Logan’s fiery, well-turned poetry roundups, collected between hard covers. DY

Art: “Family Style” (through August 24): In "Family Style," Bushwick's mitzvah-maker Julie Torres brings just about the entire outer-borough art scene together for a large group show in the tiny former home of Pocket Utopia on the Lower East Side. This must-see "collective, collaborative artist-driven project fostering community and camaraderie" is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12–6pm at 191 Henry Street through August 24. JP

“Inside Outside Upside Down: Ann Stewart & Steven Millar” at Robert Henry Contemporary (through August 10): In this small but well-curated show, the graphite-on-paper works of Ann Stewart are exhibited alongside the monochromatic mixed-media sculptures of Steven Millar. Stewart’s cellular abstractions map the relationship between thought and physical space, while Millar’s solemn forms explore structure and assemblage through his deft handling of hard geometries and the interplay between light and shadow. BPK

Music: A Little Night Music with Richard Goode (Thursday): Richard Goode, one of today's foremost recital pianists, performs an intimate concert at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center as part of the ongoing Mostly Mozart Festival. The one-hour program will comprise Schubert's Sonata in B-flat Major and selections from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Tickets are extremely limited. ECS

Other: “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy” at MOMA (August 4–September 21): Today marks the centenary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. One of many programs planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Great War, this film series at MOMA includes sixty features that deal with World War I, as well as short films and talks. Selections range from films made during the war to more contemporary movies; highlights include Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gallipoli (1981), and a program of Charlie Chaplin’s work.  BPK

Wave Hill in the Bronx: Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural center, is a slice of Tuscany in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. More intimately scaled than the nearby New York Botanical Garden, and with stunning views of the Palisades, Wave Hill matches its historic garden estate (at different times the home of Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Arturo Toscanini) with engaging art exhibitions and family activities, all for a reasonable $8 entry fee. JP

From the archive: Betraying a legacy: the case of the Barnes Foundation by Roger Kimball, June 1993: The 2012 opening of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia marked the end of a protracted battle over Albert C. Barnes’s extraordinary art collection. Take a look back at the struggle over Barnes’s legacy in this review of a 1993 traveling exhibition of some of the Foundation’s holdings.

From our latest issue: A modern classic by Peter Pennoyer: On the magnificent classical architecture of Alan Greenberg.

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Swords, sandals, and slippers

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jul 28, 2014 02:14 PM


Spartacus | © E. Fetisova

On Saturday night, the Bolshoi Ballet presented Spartacus at the Koch Theater. This was another evening in the Lincoln Center Festival. Spartacus was composed in the mid-1950s by Aram Khachaturian—whose fortunes rise and fall, at least in America.

There was a time when his piano concerto was wildly popular. A recording by Willy Kapell sold like hotcakes. His violin concerto was popular too—particularly in a recording by David Oistrakh, with the composer himself on the podium. These days, you can go many a moon without hearing either work.

No matter what, the “Sabre Dance” endures. People may not know it’s by Khachaturian. But it must be one of the most famous pieces of music.

The “Sabre Dance” comes from a ballet called Gayane, from which orchestral suites are occasionally played. An adagio in Gayane made it into the score of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is a fairly well-known adagio in Spartacus, too—made into a popular song called “Journey’s End,” sung by Andy Williams.

But opportunities to hear Spartacus, or see Spartacus, are few and far between, at least on these shores. That is a good reason to applaud the Bolshoi’s presentation of it here.

I will remind you briefly of the Spartacus drama: A Thracian warrior (Spartacus) is taken into slavery by the Romans. He is made to perform as a gladiator. He leads a glorious slave revolt against the Romans, before being crushed. For eons, Spartacus has been a symbol, a myth, an inspiration.

Khachaturian’s score begins fanfare-like: The music is heroic, splashy, and brassy. It signals, “This will be a swords-and-sandals affair. Cecil B. DeMille might as well be directing in the wings.”

Khachaturian is very good at propulsion, among other things—shots of energy. Spartacus is often intense, urgent. On Saturday night, I thought of a phrase from American history: “the fierce urgency of now.” Often the score is jagged, but then it swirls—Khachaturian achieves a balance between the “vertical” and the “horizontal.” Also, he has an exceptionally good sense of rhythm.

There are many types of music in Spartacus (to go with the many types of dance). I will name a few. There is aching love music, which veers toward the sappy, but what can you do? There is music that is vaguely “Oriental,” as we used to say. There is a bacchanal, à la Saint-Saëns. There is primitivism, à la Stravinsky. There is demented circus-style music, à la Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Overall, the score is no one’s but Khachaturian’s. It bears his stamp. I'm afraid the score suffers from bombast—but Khachaturian is a smart fellow, with flair. His Spartacus is nervous, brash, and masculine. Very masculine.

This is a male-heavy ballet, with nary a tutu in sight. There was a lot of testosterone onstage Saturday night. Really, is there a butch-er ballet than Spartacus?

The dominant masculinity makes moments of the feminine all the more welcome, and effective. Maria Vinogradova was effective indeed. She was Phrygia, the love of Spartacus. Vinogradova was touching, poetic, melting. You could practically hear the theater sigh as she danced. The other ballerina was Ekaterina Krysanova, who portrayed Aegina: chief courtesan to the Roman Crassus. She was a slinky spitfire.

The two men, Spartacus and Crassus, were danced by Denis Rodkin and Vladislav Lantratov. (The former is not to be confused with the ex-NBA star, and friend to Kim Jong-un, Dennis Rodman.) Each dancer gave a chest-thumping, “Me Tarzan” performance—but with elegance.

Watching this ballet, I had the following thought: “There will always be storytelling ballets, because there will always be storytelling. This habit or desire seems to be baked into the human condition.” Not very long ago, storytelling in ballet fell from favor. In favor were bare stages, black leotards, and abstraction. Yet storytelling endures (like the “Sabre Dance”).

I have said in my previous Bolshoi reviews that the performances could have been mistaken for concerts—and so it was with Saturday’s Spartacus. This was a fantastically musical evening. The conductor, Pavel Klinichev, seemed to conduct with great freedom, as well as the requisite discipline.

And yet we know—or I think we know—that a conductor’s freedom is restricted in a ballet pit. The conductor must defer to the dancers, who have pride of place in a ballet. I would like to tell a couple of stories (speaking of storytelling).

A few years ago, I interviewed Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor—who worked in the ballet at an early stage of his career. He was fired. Reason: He kept making the dancers fall on their behinds. He was loath to play by the rules, wanting to follow his own rules, or the rules dictated by the music at hand.

Sir Thomas Beecham was not a great one to defer, I think it’s safe to say. I learned a story from David Pryce-Jones, a friend of mine and a friend of The New Criterion’s. One night, Sir Thomas conducted Coppélia, and he favored exceptionally brisk tempos. The dancers must have had a serious workout. Laying down his baton, he remarked to the orchestra, “Made the buggers hop.”

Listening to Klinichev for two hours, I had to ask, “If he were on a concert podium instead of in a ballet pit—if there were no dancers at all—how, exactly, would he conduct differently?” It was hard for me to see how he would. He seemed to lead the dancers, rather than being led by them. There was no visible, or audible, tentativeness in him. He was bold and forthright. And so were his players.

Khachaturian, like his predecessor Tchaikovsky, creates many opportunities for the woodwinds, and the Bolshoi’s came through in spades. The bassoonist made a beautiful sound, doing his instrument proud. The percussionists were alert. (They have to be in this score.) The concertmaster, or mistress (I couldn’t see), contributed a first-class solo. And the orchestra at large was colorful and unified.

So few were the rough spots, they stood out. I could almost list them: a pizzicato here, an entrance there. The playing was as clean as anyone had a right to expect.

And Klinichev, in the pit, put on a conducting clinic. He was technically and instinctually almost unerring. When Klinichev took the stage, to bow with the dancers and gesture toward the orchestra, the orchestra applauded him. I have not seen that often.

I remember something I said after hearing the Berlin Philharmonic at a few Salzburg Easter Festivals, and the Vienna Philharmonic at a few of Salzburg’s summer festivals: I should be less forgiving of errors in the French horns. These guys prove that it is really possible to play this instrument.

Hearing the Bolshoi Orchestra in three ballets makes me think this: I should be less forgiving of poor playing in ballets. There is no law that says ballet playing has to be poor, or mediocre, or uninspired. A lot of good or great composers have lavished attention on ballet scores. They ought to be played right, just as they ought to be danced right.

Right?

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A Midsummer Night's Blocking

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Jul 28, 2014 08:50 AM


Annie Considine, Johnny Lee Davenport and Kelly Galvin, via Shakespeare and Company

Something about Shakespeare's plays seems to encourage directors to micromanage. The problem is exacerbated by the almost ubiquitous practice of blank-set stagings. Keeping the floor clear of furniture and props can help to focus attention on the text and the interactions of the characters, but all too often directors become nervous about the idea of actors standing around in empty space and end up over-blocking their scenes.

Such is the case with Shakespeare & Company's current run of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I saw on Wednesday in Lenox, MA. The directorial conceit in itself is fine: Tony Simotes (who also serves as the company's Artistic Director) sets the play in jazz-age New Orleans, splitting the action between Bourbon Street and the bayou. It's as good a setting as any other, though the dramaturg's note seems to plead too intently in asserting that “Witches, fairies, and magic are the makings of myths in most places, but not in New Orleans.”

Simotes opened the play in an attractive nightclub setting, with a musical number and some commendable swing-dancing. Had he let that be the extent of his choreography his vision might have worked, but the temptation of neatly plotted blocking proved too strong. To pick a particularly egregious example, in the opening scene at the court of Athens (It's always the court scenes), Hermia (Kelly Galvin) executed the line “I do entreat your grace to pardon me” with a pivot, a three-step cross downstage, another pivot, and a curtsy on “pardon.” Rather than immersing us in the world of the play, this sort of stiff choreography makes the audience acutely aware that we are watching actors on a stage and that somebody is telling them what to do.

It's a shame, too, because there was some lovely acting going on otherwise. The relationship between Hermia and Lysander (David Joseph) was quirky, endearing, and entirely organic. The showed a silly side, singing a harmonized duet of “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” when they entered the forest (Music was actually one of the strengths of this production, as the play's songs were given a bluesy twist). Cloteal L. Horne was a fierce and willful Helena, though during her soliloquy she seemed to be dragged all over the stage by Simotes's blocking, even throwing in a couple of twirls. Orson Welles put it best: “There's too much directing around here.”

Most everything fairy-related came off campy or scattered, though Merritt Janson was excellent as a firm and powerful Titania. Rocco Sisto's attempts to pitch his voice down for Oberon's flashes of temper did not come off well, and his speech was bizarrely fractured. Michael F. Toomey gave a consistent performance as Puck, but took the character too far in the direction of an obnoxious goblin. Moreover, his extra-textual banter was excessive and distracting, though that criticism is hardly unique to this production. Inserted ad-libs have become unfortunately widespread in performances of the comedies, and they do far more harm than good, disrupting our immersion in Shakespeare's language.

The mechanicals salvaged this one, as they so often do, throwing themselves earnestly into their buffoonery without so much as a wink at the audience. Jonathan Epstein was an unusually prominent Quince, portraying the would-be director as a courtly, hilariously self-assured southern gentleman.

Johnny Lee Davenport made the strongest impression as Bottom, bringing folksy charm and goofy charisma to the role. His philosophizing upon waking up after his transformation was stunning. As he came to the line “past the wit of man to say what dream it was” he was for a moment overcome with emotion, so carried away by the joy and awe of his experience that we could forgive his string of malaprops (“The eye of man hath not heard,” etc.). It was an unusual and deeply personal interpretation of one of the most celebrated speeches in the canon, and it happened because for a moment Simotes trusted his actor and trusted the text.

 

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs through August 30 at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox, Mass. www.shakespeare.org

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Jul 25, 2014 02:36 PM


Links of interest from the past week:

To Orchestrate a Renaissance
Andrew Balio, The Imaginative Conservative

Musical Gold
Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker

Shut Up, Please
Joe Queenan, The Weekly Standard

How Many Greek Legends Were Really True?
Armand d’Angour, BBC

Don't Send your Kid to the Ivy League
William Deresiewicz, The New Republic

From our pages:

From Super to Nuts
James Bowman

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Dancing Dreams Come to Earth at Jacob's Pillow

by James Panero

Posted: Jul 25, 2014 11:52 AM


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Jacob's Pillow, the legendary summer dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts founded in 1933, has had a stirring start to 2014, with dance that stands on its own two feet. On the second stage of the Doris Duke Theatre, Dorrance Dance tapped out a sold-out two-week run. Meanwhile on the main stage at the Ted Shawn Theatre, New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht directed several teammates from his NYCB squad in the enigmatically titled "Ballet 2014."

The purpose of Ballet 2014 was to showcase ballet of the present, with choreography from the past ten years. Introducing the evening, the Pillow's executive director Ella Baff promised "a range of works of many different choreographers, many of whom are most talked about in the ballet world."

NYCB has made big strides bringing the classical Balanchine aesthetic up to date, elevating contemporary dance with performers who are down to earth. A polished series of online video shorts, sponsored by AOL, recently put the dancers in the framework of reality TV and gave them a family-focused, all-American spin. Far from the ethereal, detached, and sometimes crazed reputation of ballet overseas, NYCB has all the knee-slapping, group-huddle wholesomeness of "Hey Let's Put on a Show."

 

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The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow.

Which is what Ulbricht did at the Pillow, and it was a hit. The first half presented five ballets that explored the romance (and longing) of pas de deux. Here was NYCB at its best, with dancers who were engaged with one another (if not actually married), the hometown kings and queens center stage at the summer-camp social. For me the first piece, "Furiant" (2012), danced by Teresa Reichlen and Robert Fairchild with choroeography by Justin Peck, was the least engaging. The flowing woodsy outfits were right for the setting, but Reichlen lacked the charged spirit, the twitters of expression, to connect fully with Fairchild. On this, I should say, I was in disagreement with my date, my four-year-old balletomane daughter, who most preferred the bright quality of this piece set to Dvo?ák's "Piano Quintet No. 2."

Up next (in reverse order from the program) was "Pas de Deux from Two Hearts" (2012), danced by Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle with choreography by Benjamin Millepied and original score by Nico Muhly. Now here was a marquee lineup of contemporary dance if there ever was one. Muhly's music had the saccharine emotion of a high-school mixtape, but in the sticky woods it seemed right. Millepied's dance is aqueous, slow-moving, a nighttime dip that ends with two steadies embracing on the lake shore. Peck and Angle wore swimsuits, and with her fluid, mellifluous movement, Peck was a dripping dream diving into Angle's arms.

"Liturgy" (2003), danced by Rebecca Krohn and Craig Hall with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, was the most self-consciously modern dance of the evening. Krohn was a specter floating through Hall's oaken branches, the treble and bass strings in fugue. The following world premiere of "Opus 19. Andante," danced by Emily Kikta and Russell Janzen with choreography by Emery LeCrone, was pleasant but ultimately the most forgettable dance of the night, although it had a goose-bump ending.

And finally came the "Sunshine" (2013), danced by the leader Daniel Ulbricht with chorgeography by Larry Keigwin. The work was set to the familiar tune of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers. It was regrettable that the music wasn't live, as shown on the pillow's online preview of the evening. And it should be said that recorded dance performances in general have a terrible problem with over-amplification, and my ears were not spared during the night's run. Nevertheless, Ulbricht danced a remarkable pas de deux as a solo. Absent a partner, he radiated his athletic energy and puffed up chest to the audience in a way that called to mind the original hardest working man in show business, James Brown. 

 

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Daniel Ulbricht, Tyler Angle, and Robert Fairchild in "Fancy Free." Photo: Christopher Duggan.

After intermission came the dessert: "Fancy Free" (1944), choreography by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein. The work is now even better known for its adaptation into the musical and movie "On the Town." Everything about this ballet of three sailors in the City on shore leave is quintessentially American and ideal for NYCB. Angle, Ulbricht, and Fairchild exude a natural camaraderie, and Georgina Pazcoguin and Tiler Peck are just right as the savvy purse-swinging ladies they meet outside the bar. As opposed to a pas de deux, "Fancy Free" is a three to two, with three sailors vying for two dames, and all the beer-drinking braggadocio that goes along with that. It is remarkable that "Fancy Free," according to the archives, had not been performed at the Pillow since 1949. Perhaps there just wasn't quite the right team of dancers to pull it off until now.  

The Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival 2014 continues in Becket, Massachusetts through August 24.

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From Super to Nuts

by James Bowman

Posted: Jul 24, 2014 10:12 AM


Marvel Comics' new Thor

The other day Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post, had an interesting piece in the paper inspired by the new movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In it, she asked why, much as she admired the film, it fell into a now-familiar pattern of “darkening” in movie adaptations  stories and characters that began life in comic books or the equivalent. “Dawn’s funereal tone,” she wrote, “seems to be the norm these days, especially for reboots of legacy franchises that, in their efforts not to succumb to sentimental nostalgia or trivialized camp, succumb to amped-up carnage and inflated self-seriousness instead.” Ms Hornaday suggests several reasons why this might be so, among them the fact that “they flatter the sensibilities of studios and the executives who greenlight these projects, reassuring them that their core competency—raiding their and others’ archives for valuable ‘pre-sold’ source material—can be one of gravitas and meaning, rather than simple repurposing of pop signifiers.”

A less charitable—and less jargony—way to put this would be to say that the studio heads who fondly imagine they are in the business of producing something called “art” are naturally embarrassed about devoting their time and talents to such flimsy, childish rubbish as superheroes and talking animals and so seek out ways to dignify it in their own minds. “Dark” suggests to them that they are making something like the real movies that Hollywood used to make before the cartoon takeover in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the other reasons Ms Hornaday cites—that, for example, “darker” cartoon projects attract big name actors and directors as well as audiences of people who expect to take their cartoons seriously— seem to me to boil down to the same reason. Grown up people need something suggesting seriousness, however implausibly, to cover their embarrassment about spending time and money on amusements they know are really only suitable for children, if for them.

Nor is this urge limited to those adapting the comics to film. The attempt to give a factitious seriousness to something that is fundamentally unserious goes back to the earliest days of the comics themselves, as Michael Cavna’s celebration of Batman’s 75th birthday in yesterday’s Post  makes clear. Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, took his drawings to an artist friend named Bill Finger, says Mr Cavna, “who sharpened and darkened the look of ‘the Batman.’” More darkening became necessary after Adam West’s camp TV Batman of the 1960s. This, according to Glen Weldon, quoted by Mr Cavna, was undertaken by Dennis O’Neil whose “decision to introduce a note of obsession saved Batman, and indirectly the comics industry, by offering a masculine ideal with whom [capital-N] Nerds could identify, and cherish.”

The masculine ideal, it should be noted, was made safe for the Nerds by being relegated to the realm of fantasy — where, since anything could happen, it didn’t even need to be masculine anymore. That must be why Marvel comics — no doubt soon to be followed by the movie-makers — have now performed a sex-change operation on Thor, the former Norse god, formerly transformed into the super-macho superhero of the same name by Stan Lee. Hey, if you’re going to fantasize Thor and his kind into existence anyway, why stop with giving him super-powers? Why not just fantasize away any other limits reality imposes on you that you don’t like? Hasn’t Bradley Manning established that it is a human right for us all to be whichever sex (or “gender”) we choose? 

Though comic book connoisseurs such as Noah Berlatsky may try to peddle their own fantasy that girls are as avid for superheroes as boys are, I see no evidence that juveniles of the fairer sex are clamoring to be given a Thor-like “role model” of their own, complete with a hammer and destructive superpowers. Thor-ess seems to me much more likely to be the product of someone catering for the kind of person who thinks, as Angela Watercutter put it in Wired, that “the importance of a new female superhero can’t be understated.” I thought for a moment that maybe she really did mean understated rather than overstated, but it turns out not. “So, yes,” she concludes, “Thor becoming a female character—the comics hit in October and will be written by Jason Aaron with art from Russell Dauterman—is very cool, and is a very big deal. But you know what’s even cooler? The fact that everyone knows it.” I think that’s probably what the two guys, Jason and Russell, were thinking, too, when they came up with the idea. I mean as well as the fact that their flattery of the feminist fantasy would mark them out as hommes sérieux.

 

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Don Quixote: Elegant high jinks

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Jul 23, 2014 11:41 AM


Don Quixote; Photo via Lincoln Center

Last night at the Koch Theater, we had Don Quixote from the Bolshoi Ballet.  This was an offering in the Lincoln Center Festival.  It turned out to be a fine offering.  Sparkling, even.

There are many Don Quixotes about.  There’s the tone poem by Strauss (with solo parts for cello and viola).  There’s the song cycle by Ravel.  There’s the opera by Massenet. 

And, oh, yes, there’s the novel by Cervantes. 

I thought of John Coleman last night.  John was a big and cherished figure at The New Criterion, a scholar of Spanish, a scholar of music, a scholar of many things.  He called his friends “maestro.”  He was a huge pleasure to be around.

I asked him once—for he was an expert—“John, is it okay to go through life without reading Don Quixote?”  He said it was, but one would not want to deprive oneself of it.  Don Quixote was well worth the time.  It has been on my list ever since, along with 10,000 other items.

In the Bolshoi’s production of the ballet, there is a portrait behind the errant knight in the Prologue.  Cervantes?  Possibly, but I don’t know.

The ballet originated with the Bolshoi, and, according to the evening’s program notes, the company has performed it “more than 1,000 times over the past 145 years.”  So, the company is tired, right?  Phoning it in, punching a clock?  Another day, another dollar, another Don?  Not on Tuesday night, no.  The ballet was fresh as a daisy, and the dancers and the orchestra acted like it was a huge privilege to perform it.

The score is by Minkus, Ludwig Minkus, an Austrian who had his career in the Russian ballet.  He lived from 1826 until three years into World War I—1917.  He saw immense changes in that lifetime.  (Minkus died in December 1917—a month after the Bolshevik Revolution.)  Don Quixote is his best-known score, probably, followed by La Bayadère, I would guess.  Don Quixote is filled with Spanish music, as befits the subject.

Is Minkus as good as Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, and the other great Spanish composers?  No, but he is proficient—proficient at the very worst.  His Don Quixote is fit for purpose.

Fit for purpose, yes, but would you want to hear this music alone, without the dancing?  As you probably would Swan LakeRomeo and JulietThe Firebird, and other ballet scores we could name?  Maybe not, but Minkus is doing a job, and getting it done.

By the way, Stephen Hough, the British pianist, played a bit of Don Quixote in his Lincoln Center recital at the end of last season.  He offered an arrangement of his as an encore.  Thus does Minkus transcend the ballet.

I will confess to having become a bit weary of castanets last night.  There was clicking and clacking all through.  I sometimes couldn’t tell whether the castanets were being played—is that the word, “played”? —onstage or in the pit.  Some of each, I think.

Years ago, I heard a soprano play the castanets as she sang “Les filles de Cadix” (by Délibes, another of those great Spanish composers).  She made a total hash of it, clicking and clacking at all the wrong times.  Maybe singing or dancing is challenge enough.

In the last couple of weeks, I have heard grumbling that the Bolshoi has brought old, tired, familiar productions to Lincoln Center.  But one should remember:  They are always new to someone.  There’s always someone seeing a production for the first time—or the last time.  That was a maxim of Robert Shaw, the late conductor.

When conducting a very familiar work, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he would tell his forces, “Remember:  In the audience tonight will be people hearing this music for the first time.  And people hearing it for the last time.  Make it good.”

It would be hard to grumble at the Bolshoi’s Don Quixote, I would think.  It is filled with elegant high jinks.  It is fun from beginning to end (accounting for occasional stretches of tedium).  Naturally, I have complaints, quibbles, barbs.  For example:  It’s one thing for Gamache to be foppish, but last night he was so foppish it was hard to see how he could be interested in Kitri, or any other woman.

To repeat, the dancers had a ball.  If there were two people in New York who enjoyed themselves more than the lead dancers, Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov, I would be surprised.  Nearly everything onstage was crisp and vital.

And so it was in the pit.  The orchestra gave no hint of slumming—none.  This is to the credit of the conductor, Pavel Klinichev.  Furthermore, the orchestra was very clean, well-nigh immaculate.  (I realize I have already mentioned “crisp,” but I am reinforcing.)  This, too, is to the credit of the conductor.  He conducted like he had an important professional engagement—which he did.

In my notes on Swan Lake last week, I said that the Bolshoi Orchestra was “confident, unafraid, present.”  The orchestra was not hiding itself under a bushel, accompanying, but playing without apology.  They were the same in Don Quixote.  An audience member could have thought of this evening as a concert with dancing.

But it was a ballet—a fusion of dance and music (and theater).  It was not the most serious evening, but a person needs a break away from tragedy now and then.  And the dancing and playing were very serious indeed—polished and knowing.  If you don’t like Don Quixote, I understand.  I really do.  But, in my estimation, this was Don Quixote done right.

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The Spiritual Home of the Hudson River School

by James Panero

Posted: Jul 22, 2014 05:00 PM


South Facade of the main house at Olana by Stan Ries 2009

South Facade of the main house at Olana. Photo: Stan Ries

The spiritual home of the Hudson River School is Olana, the homestead of Frederic Church, located on a 250-acre hilltop outside Hudson, New York. Thanks to the long-term efforts of the Olana Partnership, Church's theatrical house, designed by Church and Calvert Vaux in a colorful blend of Middle-Eastern styles, joins the grounds in a remarkable state of preservation. With sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, Olana is best appreciated in summer, when it feels like you are walking inside a lush nineteen-century landscape.

Bell Tower, south view of river from inside Bell Tower - Photo by Andy Wainwright

Bell Tower, south view of river from inside Bell Tower. Photo: Andy Wainwright

In the 1960s, after a two-year campaign to save it from developers, Olana passed from the Church family to the shared public-private stewardship of New York State and what is now The Olana Partnership. Church's art and artifacts remained in situ, making it one of the country's most well-preserved artist residences, and certainly the most singular. Since then the Olana Partnership has worked tirelessly to bring the ornate polychromed building back to its original splendor. It has also sought to restore the overgrown grounds and preserve the viewshed of this historical perspective on the Hudson.

Court Hall, Main House Olana - Photo by Andy Wainwright 2004

Court Hall, Main House Olana. Photo: Andy Wainright

The next steps for Olana will be to turn the house back into a home and working farm—a home for the ideals of Church, a living destination emerging from a relic, with all the living sights and smells. The Olana Partnership have done a remarkable job restoring and preserving the soul, the permanent collection, the house and grounds. Now the task is to reveal it as a living beacon of art, culture, and preservation. View of the Main House from Across the Lake photo by Melanie Hasbrook - Copy

View of the Main House from Across the Lake. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook

Some thoughts on the house and grounds: Today the building is approached from a parking lot at the top of the hill behind it. This gives the sense that you are visiting an artifact and not a home. The access road also has cars cutting across the property and through the viewshed. By depositing people at the top, in back, they are less likely to explore the grounds below. This current parking lot could be converted into a site for a much-needed respite and watering hole while car parking could be relocated down the hill, encouraging people to explore the grounds, walk up, and approach the main house from the front. Olana could also offer a trolly to the top, adding to the charm of the landscape. The house museum should also be arranged, if possible, to accommodate visitors who choose to experience it outside of the small, wonderful, but often sold-out docent-led tours (which now need to be booked in advance).  

View from Crown Hill, Olana photo by Melanie Hasbrook

View from Crown Hill, Olana. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook

Finally, I would love to see more involvement with contemporary artists. What a thrill it must be for artists to engage with these 250 acres. There could be residencies. I would be fascinated to see how artists working in a range of practices interpret the context of Olana: from the abstract artists of Bushwick to realist-revival painters to classical and modern dancers. They could mix on the hillsides with farmers, walkers, preservationists, children making crafts—a living tableau.

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Dispatches from Tanglewood: No.1

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: Jul 22, 2014 03:01 PM


Edward Gardner, leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 7.18.14; photo by Hilary Scott, viaBSO

I was wary going into the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Friday night concert at Tanglewood, which featured Edward Gardner as the conductor and the baritone Thomas Hampson as the guest artist. Hampson has lately not been sounding as secure as he once did, and Gardner led some uninspired and even shaky performances in New York this past year.

Their collaboration, the first of Aaron Copland's two sets of Old American Songs confirmed those fears. In Hampson there were hints in places of a once-great baritone, but technical problems held him back. His diction was foggy, and he wasn't nimble enough to weave through the folksy filigree. His middle voice, though a little on the dry side, was solid and compact, but as he ranged higher he shied away from the sound. Gardner struggled to keep the ensemble united during several of the songs—“Simple gifts” was nowhere near together, and Hampson seemed inexplicably intent on shouting his way through it.

In his encore Hampson did his best singing of the night, snatching a beautiful performance of “At the river” from Copland's second set. Here was the voice that late we knew—full, even, smooth, with mellow tone, sensitive phrasing, and crisp diction

Beethoven's Seventh has always seemed to me a brilliantly peculiar piece. In its introduction there is no hint of the glorious heroicism nor of the raucous play that is to follow. The opening is a vision of entropy: constantly expanding energies, beginning with spacious chords scored for full orchestra and followed by cascades of ascending scales, rushing to fill infinite space.

And then out of nowhere comes the movement's main theme, first a coy strain from an oboe, but then a full-forced, heroic gallop. All of this needed more energy, more momentum than Gardner gave it. Taken a little faster, the introduction actually tends to breathe more, growing out of itself more naturally. Still, this was a commendable effort that captured the piece's boisterous glee.

The second movement, the most familiar from this symphony, is another peculiarity. It's the most sober of the four and serves de facto as the piece's “slow movement” —but it's marked “Allegretto” (not that that marking is often obeyed). Gardner's tempo was middle-of-the-road, but his interpretation was not dull for that. He achieved somber simplicity, enveloping the listener in sound and pacing the music so that it grew slowly but inexorably.  The finale, too, was finely wrought, with a constant sense of forward drive. Personally, I like the coda to feel as though it might fly off the rails at any moment, but Gardner kept his hand on the rein—his ending thrilled nonetheless.

***

The young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons will become the BSO's Music Director with the start of the 2014-15 season, ending the long and trying interregnum created by James Levine's illness and subsequent departure. Nelsons pulled a Stokowski on Saturday night—he put the marquee piece, Brahms's Symphony No. 3, on the first half. There was no clear reason for doing so, and if the odd ordering didn't make the program top-heavy, it was only because Nelsons's Brahms left something to be desired.

The snags that dragged the piece down were all most present in the opening Allegro con brio. The piece opens with cascading chords, suggesting massive waves breaking over rocks. The orchestra had plenty of volume, but a sense of awe was missing. The playing was sleepy, and thinly textured, to boot—what we heard was barely allegro, and distinctly lacking in the prescribed brio.

Fortunately, all parties sprung to life for the second half. The Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson's Trumpet Concerto No. 1, “Bridge,” got a first-rate performance from Håkan Hardenberger, who premiered the piece in 1999.

This is a fascinating and riveting concerto. It has a strong voice, and its influences are hard to pinpoint—at one moment you think it sounds Russian, and at the next you'll swear you heard a snatch of Ravel. The writing is stunningly vivid, venturing in places towards gooey Romanticism in the strings, while virtuosic, jazzy licks pepper the solo trumpet part.

***

I'm going to have to borrow a phrase from a friend to describe Sunday afternoon's concerto, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole: “violin-music.” That is, showy or trifling pieces for the violin that are perfectly enjoyable but lack artistic depth, surviving mainly on the star appeal of the performer. Put into this category the works of Pablo de Sarasate, Henryk Wieniawski, and Henri Vieuxtemps. It's the sort of technically demanding, flashy repertoire on which many young violinists cut their teeth before moving on to material that has a respected place outside of the world of the violin.

Joshua Bell is the sort of violin rock-star who can sell out a hall performing pieces like this. In fact, I have often found in the past that his particular style of flamboyant playing, replete with rubato and portamento, is more suited to violin-music than it is to the works of the masters. He should be—and usually is—a perfect fit for this five-movement show-concerto.

Well, on Sunday Bell just didn't seem himself. He started off in his regular fiery vein, gnashing his way through the opening statement and running away from the orchestra early in the first movement. He was a cool customer thereafter, the one time I've ever found myself wishing that he would take another liberty or three. The third movement, a seductive little number that used to be cut in most performances (“Because it is vulgar,” as the late, great violin teacher Ivan Galamian once put it), seemed downright stiff.

Beethoven's fifth seemed an odd choice for a sunny Sunday afternoon, but no matter—Any chance to hear this piece is a gift. It's a work so masterful that it can withstand any over-interpretation a conductor might throw at it; or, as was the case with Nelsons (again on the podium), under-interpretation. That's not to say that this was not a considered and formidable performance—it was both. But I couldn't help wanting “more.”

The first movement needed to be more explosive to achieve its arresting, terrifying effect. The same went for the third movement, that wonderfully odd scherzo, and for the finale, which could have gone a few clicks faster.

The jewel of this performance was the Andante. Beethoven didn't always come up with the most inspired melodies (his genius was in what he could do with form), but the tune that serves as the first of this movement's themes might just be his loveliest. Nelsons showed masterful control here, keeping a meticulous balance that allowed supporting voices to make their presence clearly felt. Perhaps most importantly, the orchestra sounds absolutely gorgeous under his baton—a welcome sign for a group that has been in sore need of strong leadership.

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

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